Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Retailer bans lead to unintended consequences

Retailer bans on certain farming technologies often have unintended consequences, sometimes even undermining the intent of the ban, argues Al Mussel in his third of a four-part series on “Four Fallacies in Sustainable Agriculture”.

For example, banning Roundup-Ready genetically-modified corn and soybean hybrids will prompt farmers to control weeds with other pesticides that are generally more risky for people and the environment than glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

For another example, banning cages for housing laying hens likely means they will be raised in open pens where they tramp through litter, increasing the incidence of diseases and death rates.

Mussel says what’s needed is a better understanding of farming systems so the people who are pondering technology bans can work with farmers to achieve the desired results – eg. less antibiotic resistance, healthier and happier hens, lessened pesticide use and risks.

Mussel begins his paper by noting that public pressures exist “across a range of parameters, including carbon footprint, water use, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants, animal welfare, labour standards, as well as others.

“In some cases, specific technologies or techniques related to the above have been
targeted, such as genetically modified, specific pesticides, specific animal health products,
certain livestock housing systems, etc.

“However, important aspects of this movement are simplistic, misguided, or simply wrongheaded, and following these through to their logical extent presents the prospect of
pitfalls for the agri-food system,” Mussel writes.

His paper is available on the George Morris Centre website where he is the senior researcher.

“Perhaps more fundamentally, it begs the question as to how the agri-food system, and primary agriculture in particular, grew to become so unsustainable to begin with,” he writes.

“In Canada many generations of farmers have seen themselves as stewards of the land, farm product production has greatly increased and intensified, and rather than starve or cause mass illness, we have produced significant surpluses for export at steady or improving quality standards.”

This leads to his conclusions that:

1. Effort is required to thoroughly understand the nature of farm production that you seek to
regulate through standards you place on farm technologies.

The technical expertise to understand this will go well beyond the standard procurement or sustainability manager skill set, and may require expertise not typically present in food companies.

No army of auditors unleashed on the countryside to measure compliance with sustainability protocols will substitute for a thorough understanding of agricultural production systems and the nature of potential adaptation to restrictions on technology.

2. Working more closely with farmers and farm organizations on the intent of prospective
technology restrictions/mandates, rather than on specific rules, has a better prospect of producing
real sustainability gains.

Sustainability standards should not be so prescriptive. Farmers are in the best position to experiment within their own production systems to achieve a desired sustainability outcome, which they may have never previously paused to think about.

Farm organizations can help facilitate and coordinate these initiatives across the many farms that feed
the supply chain.

3. Having reasonable expectations as to what can really be achieved is important.

Because of the complexities of production systems and biological adaptation it will take time to get
effective sustainability measures implemented and see results.

These measures must also move through a diffuse market system to induce compliance, rather than via a centralized command and control system.

Patience will be required for voluntary adoption and learning before real sustainability results can be seen, from well researched sustainability initiatives that truly stand 
up to scrutiny.